The Literary Toolbox: Description as Emotion

One of the things we learn early on about description is not to “info dump.” In other words, don’t bore your readers to tears with pages of detailed description of the world of your novel. Drop it in slowly, as needed. But something we writers learn as we get further into the process is that every word in a novel should be multi-tasking.

Description is no exception, as we discussed in one of Kathryn Craft’s workshops. What your characters notice and how they interpret what they see says a lot about who they are and their state of mind. Description should add to the atmosphere and the emotion of the scene—and it can be a great way to show your character’s emotion without telling and without being cliché. For example, a character overhearing another character laughing can interpret that laughter as jovial or as somehow derisively directed at him, depending on if the character is happy or embarrassed.

But how do you choose which descriptive details to include in order to convey emotion? Very simply, you put yourself in your POV character’s head. What would your protagonist be most likely to notice about a scene in his situation, and what would be his emotional reaction to it?

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Just get inside your character’s head. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, at least for some of us. J. Thomas Ross did a wonderful post on Author As Actor that describes the process and problems of getting into character—or not.

I always think I’m inside my character’s head, but my crit partners constantly find tiny mistakes that show that I am not inside my character enough. This is likely one reason why my description tends to do only one thing—describe. That is not enough. Description, like every other facet of the story, must support the plot/conflict/tension of the book.

In conclusion: 1) It takes a surprisingly small amount of description to give a reader a good idea of the scene. 2) The reader will assume that anything you take time to describe is important to the story. 3) Anything you describe should be important or necessary to the protagonist. 4) How the protagonist interprets what he notices should reflect their current emotional state.

I’m going to work further on using description to effectively convey emotion. I know that it will bring a new level of depth and professionalism to my writing, and I am eager to get practicing!


  1. Glad you found this topic inspiring, Kerry! Luckily, the technique is not only important, but fun. 🙂

    • And hard–you forgot hard! But every technique is when you first try it. The more you do it, the more it will become automatic. That will be REALLY fun!

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